Flooding (East Leeds)

– in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 26th July 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

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Photo of George Mudie George Mudie Labour, Leeds East 6:01 pm, 26th July 2007

I am grateful to raise the issue of flooding in my constituency and in Leeds generally. As the television pictures continue to come in, there are worries that the earlier flooding in the north might be discounted. One example of our worries is the great city of Leeds.

The day before the floods hit Yorkshire, the Environment Agency told Leeds that the rain, which eventually landed on Sheffield, would actually hit Leeds. The Environment Agency and the city council estimated that 1,500 homes, 35,000 house units of commercial property, the main rail station and the M1, electricity sub-stations, sewage works and other services would all be flooded. It is very sad that the wind changed direction and the floods hit Sheffield, but those estimates demonstrate how close Leeds was to disaster.

I am grateful to the Minister and the Government that the £100 million flood defence scheme that was suspended in January was reinstated in July. However, the worry is that it is still to be designed and agreed, and that it still has to be bid for against other priorities. I thank the Minister for the reinstatement, but I put down a marker and ask that he recognise the genuine worry that, even with the reinstatement and disregarding the worries of bidding, building will still not start until 2010-11. Leeds, a major city, will be in peril for four years and beyond, until the scheme is in place, and that is all supposing that it will win in competition with other schemes. I therefore want to take this opportunity to spell out, in human and economic terms, the effect on the city and the effect on the west Yorkshire economy if anything happens to that commercial hub.

The second matter that I want to raise is similar and relates to my constituency. Set against the painful scenes of disaster that we have witnessed recently, one could describe the flooding in my area as localised flooding; but whether it is national, widespread or localised flooding, it still affects people in the same way. It might involve smaller numbers, but it has the same effect, and causes great distress and trauma to any householder who has had their house flooded.

In my area, Foundry lane, Seacroft, Wykebeck Valley road, Whitkirk lane were all affected by flooding in varying degrees, but the hardest hit area was Dunhills, a small, well-established estate that is not built on a floodplain. Its houses have been there for 60 to 70 years and are all owner-occupied. The Wyke beck meanders, usually peacefully, through the middle of the estate. It is therefore unprecedented that it has flooded in each of the past three years. Residents have had to spend months out of their homes, living in hotels and in other people's houses.

A good friend of mine, George Summersgill, has lived on the estate all his life, but he is now living in a mobile home van in his drive. I have seen the effect that that has had on George. He is a big, strong man in his 70s, but he has visibly diminished in spirit over the three years. Every year, he and his wife have gone through the trauma and got their home back to normal, only for it to be destroyed again the next year. This year it has happened again.

This might be a small-scale matter, but it involves the same point that I made about the city centre, which I want to bring to the Minister's attention. An alleviation scheme is under consideration, but I am dismayed to find that it will take 18 months for it to be agreed upon, designed and put up for bids. I am sure that there is nothing that the Minister can do about this, but even if a bid succeeds, the physical work will still be more than two years away. I am sure that hon. Members will be able to imagine the fear and apprehension of the residents, having already had three years of continuous flooding. Will the Minister accept that the regularity of the flooding makes the area a strong contender for further attention? I understand that he cannot make a decision on something that is going to happen 18 months from now, but I am seeking words of comfort from him on behalf of my constituents.

The third matter that I want to comment on demonstrates the value of this Chamber and the value, whether we believe it or not, of Adjournment debates. Or perhaps this is just a coincidence. Ten days ago, my very good friend, Councillor Michael Lyons, some residents from the action group, led by the tireless David Davenport, and I met city council officials and representatives from the Environment Agency to discuss the 70 households on the estate that have been severely damaged over three consecutive years. In view of the fact that perhaps two or three years will have to pass before an alleviation scheme is built and working, we were asking for the kind of personal protection that is available for those homes, on the basis of the unacceptable regularity of the flooding, and of the fact that it would be so long before the scheme was agreed. We discussed the scheme for many hours with the officials, but the difficulty was the funds.

Ah, the value of an Adjournment debate! At 11 o'clock this morning—by total coincidence—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Leeds city council put out co-ordinated press releases to say that they had found the money and would conduct a pilot scheme with the 70 houses. I would like to thank the Minister, and to thank Mr. Speaker and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate. I also want to thank this listening Government, who have found the money for the protection. I genuinely thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents. However it was organised and co-ordinated, it is very welcome.

I should like briefly to touch on the help that is going to householders generally. In my eyes, the Government have handled the flooding problems with great restraint and sympathy, but I believe that they have still to adopt a coherent line on what help to give to individuals. When I raised the matter on the Floor of the House, I asked what help was to be given to the uninsured. I was gently lectured—the Secretary of State is a gentle Minister—on the need not to demotivate householders from taking out insurance, which has been a stock response of Ministers over the years. However, the line seems to have changed and, thankfully, money has been sent round. At the moment, I believe the sum is £20 million. It was £10 million, but it has been doubled. I would be delighted if the Minister had something up his sleeve and was about to tell me that it is now even more. That would be excellent.

Leeds has something in the region of £200,000 as its share of this pot. However, money is being given to businesses in Yorkshire and the regional development agency has proudly offered every small business affected in any way by flooding £2,500—on completion of one sheet of paper. I do not criticise that. Money is going to local authorities to meet repair costs on public buildings, and I do not wish to criticise that. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has made an announcement of a bigger amount than the hardship fund for residents—offering money for schools that have been damaged in the floods. That is welcome.

In all those cases, however, the question whether offering those funds is demotivating local authorities, businesses and education authorities from taking out insurance does not seem to have been asked. I always thought that local authorities took out insurance and that schools did so through the LEA. I would expect businesses to do the same. The money is very welcome, though, as I have said. I am not challenging the extra money being given, but it seems so tokenistic.

If the Minister had not found the money this morning for this personal scheme, the money given to Leeds for householder hardship would not have covered the personal security for the 70 properties in question. Hundreds of houses were affected this year in comparison with last year and the year before that. I wonder on what basis the money is supposed to be distributed: is it per head, is it to every property, how does it fit in with what I mentioned earlier? I never complain about the Government giving money, but it is early days yet, and given the scale of the flooding throughout the year, I believe that a coherent line would be useful.

On a related matter, I would like to ask the Minister about the behaviour of the insurance companies. Because of the problems we have suffered, I have organised a special insurance advice surgery in my patch next week. I worry about the tales I hear about increased premiums, huge rises in excess payments and the fact that the insurance companies are, as we all know, great at collecting but bad at paying out. The Minister might well say, "Well, that's just tales", but last night's Yorkshire Evening Post ran a story about a Dunhill resident, Mr. Beehary, whose garden and house have been flooded for three consecutive years. I have been amazed and saddened at what has happened to that retired couple. Their insurer, Lloyds, insists that they meet the first £10,000 of the costs of the damage from this year's floods. In anybody's terms, that seems pretty unacceptable behaviour on the part of the insurance company—and it is contrary to what the industry says publicly about how sympathetically it will treat people who have been flooded.

Senior members of the Government recently met members of the insurance industry and it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what undertakings were given by the industry. Perhaps people in areas affected by floods could be given a copy of the minutes of that meeting so that they can be in possession of the terms of what was offered and agreed by the insurance industry, which would also help us to advise and properly represent our constituents.

Briefly, I want to put on the record a matter relating to surface flooding. I mentioned Foundry lane, which suffers regularly from water coming over from a sports field behind the houses. That is a dangerous and recurrent problem. According to my research, no one currently has any responsibility or duty to resolve flooding arising from such surface water run-off from fields or open space. Section 94 of the Water Industry Act 1991 states:

"It shall be the duty of every sewerage undertaker— that is, the private water companies—

"to provide, improve and extend such a system of public sewers (whether inside its area or elsewhere) and so to cleanse and maintain those sewers as to ensure that that area is and continues to be effectually drained".

The water companies, however, refuse to see it as their responsibility when houses are knee-deep in water that has run off fields and highways. The reason that they give is that the legislation only empowers them to provide sewers, and sewers are elsewhere defined as drains serving premises, not open land.

Many parts of Leeds have no natural watercourses. Consequently, overland flows cannot soak away and cannot go into sewers. There is no solution that anyone has a duty to implement. Section 94, which was originally a duty on local authorities under the Public Health Act 1936, has been rendered meaningless. Councils and the Environment Agency have permissive powers to carry out flood alleviation works on ordinary watercourses and main rivers respectively, but no duty to do so. Section 105 of the Water Resources Act 1991 says that the Environment Agency shall exercise a general supervision of all matters relating to flood defence. The Environment Agency, however, has no general responsibility for solving flooding problems, and hardly ever exercises any sway over the water companies.

It is vital that the duty to drain effectually the area should be made enforceable, even if it is lifted out of the Water Industry Act and given to the Environment Agency; otherwise, there is no point in Ministers calling for greater co-operation between the various agencies to resolve flooding problems. Putting that on the record might be useful for the review rather than for instant answer, so I would appreciate it if the Minister noted that and passed it on.

I want to comment on how the authorities responded to the floods in my area and nationally. Three years ago, I was depressed by the lack of dynamism and interest shown by each of the authorities. For example, when a street was flooded, with water coming up to people's doors, buses and traffic, including sightseers in their cars who came to see what was going on, were allowed through, which caused waves to go into houses and flooding. We could not get the police to come and divert the traffic. They said that it was not their responsibility. Instead, a brave female member of the public stood under an umbrella in an electrical storm diverting the traffic. The local fire brigade would not come to pump out houses unless the householder agreed in advance that they would pay a certain amount to the fire service.

Nationally, and certainly locally, the position has changed. This year, my constituents are full of praise for the responses that they received. That has been helped by individual behaviour by staff who have shown great sympathy and dedication. That might mask, however, the lack of a formal indication of an agreed system to work during emergencies—a tried and trusted system that swings into action in the event of a disaster or emergency. Individual acts of great concern can mask a lack of control and accepted co-operation at a higher level—I am speaking not about Government, but about the district and authority level. I have now written to both the fire and police services to ask what their agreed policy is on how to operate and respond in an emergency. I am not sure what the flooding policy of each of the services is.

We are finding, during the present period, nationally as much as locally, that the flooding seems to have come as a surprise to some authorities and to many people who have had to deal with it, but it is true that there has been a right British spirit. Everyone has risen to the challenge. However, as disasters often lead to loss of life, I would like the Minister to assure the House that I am being unduly pessimistic, that each area has an agreed control and operational system and that, without the general public being aware of it, those systems are quietly tested in regular exercises to iron out any difficulties.

I again thank the Minister, but above all I thank those individuals in the emergency services who worked with the residents in the hopeless and sad task of trying to stop the flooding from damaging their houses. The individual acts of kindness and devotion to duty deserve the thanks of the House.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:20 pm, 26th July 2007

The traditional congratulations are due to my hon. Friend Mr. Mudie on securing the debate, which is enormously important and timely. One would never have imagined that an Adjournment debate on flooding would follow the summer recess debate. That shows how pertinent the debate is. I assure him that the Government have not forgotten the June floods. Indeed, immediately before this debate, I attended a ministerial meeting on flood recovery following the June floods, and ministerial visits have been made this week to find out the situation for ourselves. I ask him to take that message back.

I will answer the specific points on Leeds, because that is what will be of most value to my hon. Friend in the time that I have available, but briefly to answer his questions on the insurance companies, I and ministerial colleagues met the Association of British Insurers two weeks ago to discuss that point and to reinforce the message that he and others have passed on. The Leader of the House announced arrangements for Members of Parliament with concerns to get in touch during the recess, and a letter will be sent to him from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The press statement that was issued after the meeting gave a full account of the points agreed at the meeting, where the statement of principles was reinforced and the assurances that were sought were given.

On drainage co-ordination, my hon. Friend kindly made the point that it has already been announced that that is a matter for the review. It is also fundamental, core business for my Department. Irrespective of the recent floods, that is an area of huge policy attention.

On my hon. Friend's specific point about the authorities' response, I concur that no civil resilience planning can substitute for the resilience of the public. It does not work without them and without individual acts of initiative and of people taking responsibility. However, the fact that the response this time was much better than three years ago is a tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford and the former Deputy Prime Minister my right hon. Friend Mr. Prescott, who put into place the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 precisely to ensure that, at local level, there is co-ordination under a single command and control structure—the gold command. I suspect that the better responses that my hon. Friend has had reflect that point.

We are aware of the problems in Leeds generally and of the Wyke beck situation in my hon. Friend's constituency. I am advised that there have been five flooding events in the past seven years, three of which were especially serious and affected up to 70 properties. The Environment Agency is undertaking a study using previous flood studies and hydraulic models to identify detailed flood risk areas and the constraints within the river channel. Some 20 possible options for flood alleviation have been identified, based on site visits, past flood events, flood studies and discussions with Leeds city council and Yorkshire Water. The Environment Agency will assess the options and evaluate their impact on reducing flood risk. That work will be completed in around three weeks' time. The next stage will be to assess the costs and financial benefits of the options, together with identifying any environmental improvements. It is likely that that element of work will be contracted to consulting engineers.

We have also been asked, through the agency, to assess whether a footbridge is causing a constriction to the river flow at the Dunhill Rise estate. A river gauge has been installed to provide a flood warning service based on empirical evidence. It will be available for operation in September 2007. As my hon. Friend will know, a flood warden network has also been established.

In terms of future development, there is the Leeds plan, and my hon. Friend mentioned the reinstatement by the agency of the money. The time factors are in part dependent on, and a function of, the funds available, but I assure my hon. Friend that we weigh the risk factors, including the population and economic importance of Leeds, in deciding such matters. I hope that he can take reassurance from that.

I hope that I can convince the House of the truth that it is entirely a coincidence that the pilot project money for resilience has been made available at the same time as my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate. The fact is that the robustness of the bid made it clear that it should be successful and I was simply acting on recommendations from experts and officials. I am grateful nevertheless for my hon. Friend's thanks. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend's specific questions and given him some good news to take back up the M1, or on GNER, if he is looking after his carbon footprint.

The next major policy initiative in the area, which current events will feed into but which was happening anyway, is the thorough review of the flood risk management policy in the cross-Government "Making space for water" strategy. That looks at the issue in the round, including risk from all forms of flooding, such as rivers, sea, ground water, surface run-off and sewers. We are looking at a broad range of management measures and aiming to improve management of the risk nationally by giving the agency a strategic overview of all forms of flooding in close partnership with local authorities, the water companies and others. We have already announced the detailed form that that new role will take on the coast and we have invited initial views on the situation inland. The responsibilities and co-ordination concerning urban drainage are complex. Water and sewerage companies plan for future demands on the public sewerage network, and Ofwat has been working with them to develop 25-year sewerage supply and demand plans that will take account of our climate change expectations.

The Government have significantly increased funding, from £600 million to £800 million for the next spending review period—a considerable increase on earlier capital budgets. I emphasise again that the reduction forced on the Environment Agency owing to pressures in the financial year was on recurrent expenditure, not capital expenditure. However, my experience of the exceptional circumstances of the past few weeks suggests that no amount of funding could have prevented the disasters we have seen.

I send my good wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the House and, especially, to the victims of flooding in my hon. Friend's constituency and throughout the country. I assure them that the Government will not take their eye off the ball during the recess.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o'clock till Monday 8 October, pursuant to Resolution [16 May].

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